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The Day the Web Went Dark

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A lot of Internet users today are checking in with their daily websites to find that those websites aren’t up and active.  They’re instead finding that some of those sites have gone dark, putting a halt to their operations today to raise awareness on two bills currently in Congress: H.R. 3261 and S. 968, known as the “Stop Online Piracy Act” and “Protect IP.”  For those of you that don’t really follow news in the tech world, these are two bills whose aim to stop online piracy. OK. Fair enough.

The problem arises when one actually sits down and reads the language of the bills – SOPA and PIPA are so overreaching and broad in scope that they threaten the web itself, inadvertently targeting websites that thrive on user-generated content. Sites participating in a full blackout are Wikipedia, Reddit, GamePolitics and others. Other sites like the EFF and Ars Technica have changed their sites to a dark blackout theme in solidarity.  While this argument has been going on for months, it’s something that the mainstream media is just picking up now, so please don’t think that this is some new thing that just started.  SOPA in particular has already gone through a round of markup hearings in the House Judiciary Committee (showing us the huge disparity between knowledge and power) late last year and PIPA has also been making the rounds, with a vote pending on January 24.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with what the overreaching methods I discussed are all about, let me give you a quick nutshell.  SOPA and PIPA more or less state that ISPs (Internet Service Providers) can be compelled by court order to block user access to websites that are accused of either infringing or supporting the infringement of copyrighted material.  “Accused of.”  This hands copyright holders (i.e. MPAA, RIAA and other big media) a kill switch to the Internet.  Sure, it’ll work, but at the cost of censorship, an active web blacklist, the 1st Amendment, and the very nature of the Internet itself. All it would take is a good faith belief that a site is infringing on copyrighted material and a court order can be obtained to not only take it offline but choke off payments to it via PayPal and other payment methods.  Now while recent alterations soften the language a little bit, the spirit of the bills stay the same.

Some of you who may not follow technology news may not really think that this is such a huge thing, but it affects every Internet user. How does a world governed by SOPA and PIPA affect you, the everyday Internet user? Let’s go back to the meat of the bill – if it’s thought that any part of a website contains infringing material, the entire website can be blocked.

Think about those cloud storage services you use to keep all of those photographs and videos you share with your friends and family. Think about Facebook. Reddit. Twitter. and Tumblr. Think about everyone that blogs through blog services like Blogger and WordPress. And I don’t even want to think about a Google Images search gone awry. If this goes through, wave bye bye to your digital presence.

There are other reasons why these bills are pointless. The DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) which is already in place seems to be working. I’m sure many of you have gone to YouTube or other video sites only to see that a “video removed” message replaced the content. See how they did that? They removed the copyrighted content without blocking the user’s access to the site, as SOPA/PIPA would do.

Secondly, these bills were originally written to target foreign sites supporting piracy. Foreign sites. If that’s the case then why are those made to pay the consequence American users? Do you think the Pirate Bay is scared? I guarantee you they’re not, and still running their torrent service like they always have been. Plus, anyone with even a shred of Internet knowledge can go around DNS and get where they want to go through an IP address (Internet Protocol in this case, not Intellectual Property).

So what can you the user do about it?  The most important thing that you can do is to be heard. Contact your local politician and tell him or her NO on SOPA and PIPA.  Don’t know how to do that? Don’t worry, you know I’ve got you covered. Google has also started a petition to stop SOPA and PIPA, and put it better than I ever could – End Piracy, not Liberty. Check the following links: 

Find your House Representative

Find your Senators

Google Petition

Here are some other resources so you can get more information on SOPA and PIPA:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation

Ars Technica’s SOPA Resistance Day

Technical Fowl’s coverage of the House Judiciary SOPA Hearing  

Also, here’s a handy guide to where Representatives and Senators stand, complete with campaign contributions: http://projects.propublica.org/sopa/

Sometimes change has to start with We the People.

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